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Screening tool needed to head off ovarian cancer

Cancer! Everyone gets it or is most certainly effected by it. That's pretty much the belief of most people these days and unfortunately, they are right. And what are Americans warned to do to avoid losing a battle against cancer. Get it early. Get it quick. And that's great advice, if you can get it early and get it quick.

Kathy Hirst

              Kathy Hirst

But for the 22,000 women who are diagnosed with ovarian cancer each year, 14,000 die annually because there is no screening tool to identify it. Therefore, until some form of early detection is developed, all women are at risk.

For Kathy Hirst, a wife, mother of three and health care executive in the Boston area, she never saw it coming. She was in North Carolina on vacation with her husband Ken in August of 2016, having a wonderful time, when she felt a stomach ache and some congestion in her lungs.  She waited for it to go away. It didn't. So she figured a quick visit to her local urgent care center for a prescription of antibiotics would do the trick and she would be back to her old self. Nope.

The physician at the urgent care center suspected something more than a respiratory issue and conducted a chest X-ray, which revealed that her right lung had partially collapsed. They put her in an ambulance and it was off to Leonard Morse Hospital in Framingham, Massachusetts for more tests. A CT scan was performed which showed one large spot on her diaphragm where fluid was building, indicating it might be Stage 4 metastatic cancer. There was also fluid in her abdomen. The medical team believed it was cancer, but couldn’t identify the cause. Kathy was admitted into the hospital in order to perform another CT scan. After further tests, the oncologist at the hospital informed Kathy that she had ovarian cancer and possibly primary peritoneal cancer. In 80 percent of women, by the time ovarian cancer is diagnosed, it has already spread to the omentum. There is currently no screening tool to diagnose ovarian cancer early, therefore most women diagnosed are already in the later stages.

Kathy and Ken Hirst with the three children.

Kathy and Ken Hirst (left of Kathy) with their  children (L-R) Andrew, Stephanie and Kaitlyn

The cancer physician at Leonard Morse Hospital told Kathy she needed to see an oncologist right away. At this point, Kathy wanted to move to one of the best cancer medical centers in the world, the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston. The Leonard Morse oncologist was incredibly helpful getting Kathy in to see the medical director and program leader of the Medical Gynecologic Oncology Program at Dana-Farber. This world-renown oncologist conducted further testing on Kathy and unfortunately confirmed the worst. It was ovarian cancer and it was Stage 4.

For every person that receives this type of bad news, it is that moment when they determine how they will mentally approach the upcoming life-threatening challenge and the treatment. Kathy Hirst is a fighter. There is nothing in her DNA that would allow her to do anything but maintain a positive attitude and fight to win her life. She was told her chemotherapy treatment would start that week. “We knew what we were about to face,” said Kathy about the battle she would find with the support of her family. “We had to prepare ourselves. Everything happened so fast. It felt like I was watching my life from afar. I was dedicated and committed to getting the treatment. No messing around. No time for anything. No grieving. Let’s just do this.”

A port was placed in her, which she named Apollo.

“I was attacking the cancer,” she said. “We were at war here. I like Greek mythology and looked up Apollo, a great warrior, who was helping me take my medicine and delivering it to the cancer. Athena was my huge guardian angel and chief of staff to attack every single cell in every single place.”

Kathy and husband Ken fighting the battle together

    Kathy and Ken fighting the battle together

Kathy’s chemotherapy treatment was scheduled over a six-month period, beginning in August. Then in October, she had surgery to remove her ovaries and cancer on her peritoneum along with spots on the bowel and diaphragm, which went very well. She spent a lot of time mentally preparing for the surgery using Apollo and Athena.

“My family was there,” said Kathy. “They were great! Tremendous! We all have the same fight in us. My husband has been a rock. We support for each other, talk about our fears.”

Once Kathy had finished the treatment and surgery in January of 2017, her cancer was in remission. She and her family could only hope for the best, hope she was clear for a long time to come. But three months later, in April, a stomach ache sent her back to Leonard Morse Hospital’s Emergency Room for another series of tests that showed a little blockage. She was given paperwork as she left the hospital and saw that her biomarkers were elevated. She knew the ovarian cancer was back and called her oncologist at Dana-Farber. Her biomarkers were monitored from May through July. There was no treatment, just watching her biomarkers go up. Kathy was concerned about no treatment being applied, but when the oncologist explained that she didn't want to put a toxic chemical into her body without being 100 percent sure the cancer was back, Kathy understood and agreed. Later, a PET scan showed a suspicious spot on her bowel. Her oncologist still wasn't convinced it was back, but Kathy was certain. Unfortunately, she was right and another PET scan showed it clearly.

Cancer the second time around is always more difficult. The mental exhaustion and fear continues to weigh on patients and tear down their courage. But Kathy kept fighting. She has been in treatment since August and is currently in clinical trials for two new drugs to treat ovarian cancer.

Kathy at 2017 girlygirl PARTS 5K Run/Walk for Ovarian Cancer

Kathy at 2017 girlygirl PARTS 5K Run/Walk for Ovarian Cancer

“When I went through it the first time, I was told there is a high recurrence,” said Kathy. “I definitely get more scared. Is it taking me over? I talk to myself a lot, put it in perspective. I had to become an advocate again. Ovarian cancer has to be treated like a chronic disease. I am in it for the long haul.”

Kathy’s advice for women is to be your own advocate. “I’m very in tune to my body,” she said. “You have to become ultra in-tune with your body because ovarian cancer is still being misdiagnosed. You don't want to feel like you are a hypochondriac, but have to find a balance between understanding the natural aches and pains of aging and something that could be a a health issue. You have to be careful about discounting those little aches and pains. You have to find a balance between aches and pains associated with ordinary aging and signs and symptoms that may be cancer."

To help educate women about ovarian cancer, Kathy is working with girlygirl P.A.R.T.S. (Pre-Screening Awareness Required To Silence ovarian cancer), an advocacy group working to generate awareness and research funding for ovarian cancer through programs like the annual girlygirl P.A.R.T.S. 5K Run/Walk for Ovarian Cancer. Kathy hopes her story will educate more women, draw funding and inspire health care organizations to develop a screening tool or method to identify ovarian cancer early. More information is available at www.girlygirlparts.org.

As for Chicagoans, we have the University of Chicago Medical Center, Northwestern University Hospital, Loyola University Medical Center and Rush University Medical Center -- four of the best hospitals in the world for treating and managing cancer patients. But for women, it is going to be incredibly important to make certain you understand what the potential signs and symptoms are for ovarian cancer. And if you believe you may have it because of those signs, be sure to get at least two opinions, so it is not missed or misdiagnosed. As Kathy Hirst says, you have to be your own best health care advocate.

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